If continuing to conduct at the ripe old age of 90 is an indication of remarkably good health, then Sir Neville Marriner is a clear advertisement for wielding the baton long after conventional retirement age. It was this nonagenarian who directed the assembled forces of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (founded by himself in 1958), the London Philharmonic Choir, Trinity Boys Choir and the veteran actor John Hurt (making his proms debut) for the second half of Sunday afternoon’s prom. The prom comprised Walton’s Henry V: A Shakespeare Scenario in the 1988 arrangement by Christopher Palmer, which was first given by Marriner and the ASMF in 1990. Much of the soundtrack to Walton’s original 1944 film score has been lost, and while two arrangements already exist (Malcolm Sargent and Muir Matheson), Palmer’s ten-movement suite reclaims nearly all of the original material. It is, of course, wonderful music – whether red-blooded or bittersweet – but a more even distribution of the music would have made a satisfying whole for this concert performance.

Sir Neville Marriner © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Sir Neville Marriner
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

That said, John Hurt as the narrator was faultless in his presentation of Shakespeare’s familiar words; and if the text in “The Night Watch” was overly long, his rallying cries in “Harfleur”, ending with “God for Harry, England and Saint George”, were utterly persuasive. His characteristic scratchy tone was nearly obliterated in the thrilling “Embarkation” executed superbly by Marriner’s economical gestures and the orchestra, although one might have wished for a little more musical spontaneity. Equally impressive was the all too brief “Touch her soft lips and part” delivered with the gentlest of tones, its exquisite phrases lovingly prepared. The two excellent choirs (absent from the 1963 Mathieson version) were also thoroughly prepared, with the Trinity boys performing their wordless chorus from memory scores. Overall it was fascinating to hear Walton’s rarely performed suite and an inspiration to see the extraordinarily youthful and energetic Neville Marriner.

Steering the prom through the first half was the celebrated American violinist Joshua Bell – leader of the ASMF since 2011 – who directed Beethoven’s Symphony no. 1 in C major from the leader’s chair. This was a neat and tidy performance entirely characteristic of the ensemble. Everything fell into place in a well-behaved sort of manner but, in the first two movements, it left one wanting some magic and a sense of a young German firebrand breaking down Viennese conventions. Balance and ensemble were successfully achieved throughout with some fine cameo offerings from woodwind and horn, but occasionally there could have been more rhythmic bite. The opening of the slow movement, for example, perhaps needed a more prolonged pianissimo to give the sforzando accents greater impact. But it was the spirited finale where the players, encouraged by Bell, really let their hair down in a performance that went some way towards reflecting the irreverence and irascibility of a young composer at the beginning of his symphonic journey.

Joshua Bell directing the Academy of St Martin in the Fields © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Joshua Bell directing the Academy of St Martin in the Fields
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Magic finally came with Joshua Bell and Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G minor. The soloist’s capacity to direct the enlarged chamber orchestra for their tutti moments, to engage with the audience on a different emotional level and still produce pearls was particularly impressive. This was especially evident in the Adagio, where Bell’s sweet-toned Stradivarius hung in the air. It was within this slow movement that he reached to the very heart of the work and prompted several people near me to reach for their handkerchiefs. Those in the audience who had snuffled during the Bruch had another opportunity when Bell served up a fragrant dessert in the shape of the main theme from the Nigel Hess film score Ladies in Lavender – the last notes certainly lingering in my head long after the rapturous applause.